Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

In the same way that the key to a great morning is a good night’s sleep, a little-known trick to start your new year off right is to spend some quality time reviewing the year before. Yet all too often we skimp on reflection in favor of celebration amid the rush of holiday activities. We live in a go, go, go world, and the dash from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve seems to go by even faster than the other 365 days.

There’s no big advertising push nudging us to take stock in the way that there is to buy gifts and decorations all season long. There’s no Hallmark movie or card lauding the value of making this kind of list and checking it twice. So taking time out for a Family Year in Review is a practice we’ve got to instill on our own. We have to consciously pause and make time and space to close out the year.

It’s worth it, though! As Jana Aplin puts it, “We need to learn how to review the past year so that we’re ready to embrace the new year.” 

And we can look to the corporate world, where annual reviews are standard, for some inspiration. For example, personal branding thinker William Arruda views the end-of-year review of career highlights as punctuation. He writes: “In our always-on, 24/7, 365 world, one day blurs into the next. Each week just follows the previous. Entire months go by without any acknowledgment that you’ve moved from May to June. It’s important to add a period or even an exclamation mark to each year, giving you an opportunity to start the new year with a fresh new chapter or at least a new sentence.”

Here are a few ideas for starting this new holiday-season tradition:

Pair the reflective with the festive. 

This isn’t an annual corporate review, so no need to make it all business. Play some instrumental holiday music in the background if you like. Put out a tray of treats. Fill up mugs with warm toasty cider or hot chocolate. Talk about it over breakfast in your holiday PJs—whatever folds most easily into your existing routines.

Let everyone gather their thoughts.

It’s helpful for each person to review and think through the questions on their own first, and jot down some notes, before sharing thoughts aloud with the family. Kids of all ages learn through writing. They gain valuable experience organizing their ideas and planning how to express them.

Support littles by being responsive to any questions they have about words they want to use. Encourage those who can’t yet write words to draw a picture or scribble their part. Think of it as a mini-introduction to the notion that ideas in our minds can somehow be expressed and preserved on paper.  A list of conversation starters (see below) might get older children and adults thinking while a simpler coloring sheet might best engage the littles. Have paper, pencils, markers, stickers, or whatever will engage your family most on hand. 

Get a free printable Family Year in Review coloring worksheet here. Just enter your email address to get access to this and loads of other free printables.

Pass the mic.

After each person has a chance to ponder the family-year-in-review questions, open up discussion to craft your collective review. This exercise creates a wonderful opportunity to get everyone talking about the highs and lows of their year and also to think about the intersections with other relatives’ experiences. 

One person can read the questions aloud one by one, giving each family member an opportunity to respond. Another person can be the scribe who records answers for the group or for little ones who aren’t yet writing. Everyone doesn’t have to answer every question, but the goal is to engage the whole family in the stroll down memory lane and capture the highlights of the year you shared. You can even make a game of it by passing around a karaoke mic or toy to give each family member the floor when it’s their turn to speak.

Ask Siri, Alexa, or the tech helper of your choice. 

It’s most fun and casual to just chat about what immediately comes to mind for everyone, but you can bring a little tech into the mix to surface additional memories. Simply scrolling through your digital calendar may remind you of some trips or activities that may have slipped your mind but enhanced your year.

Plus, your phone’s camera roll will bring the little moments that add up to a life to the fore—the meals shared, first days of school, haircuts, and everyday adventures. Some of the apps you use may also give you an assist with this project by giving insight into which songs or podcasts you listened to most.

Save your review to look at again next year. 

Talking through the year with your family can take conversation in some very interesting directions. Be sure to take notes, record video reflections, or memorialize the highlights in some other format, so you can revisit it in coming years.

Even if you never look back at the document or watch the video again, the process of listening, sharing, and curating your family’s greatest hits is powerful. And dwelling in that space of connection and gratitude is the perfect place from which to launch a new year. But chances are that your family will return to this keepsake of memories in the near or farther future.

  • What were your favorite family memories?
  • What one word best describes the year? 
  • Where did we visit?
  • What was the biggest lesson you learned?
  • What new friends did you make?
  • What new hobbies or activities did you try?
  • Who made a big impact on your life?
  • What were the biggest moves, changes, or transitions?
  • What books did you love?
  • Where did you go that you would like to return to?
  • What did you do that you never want to do again?
  • What were you most grateful for?
  • What was your biggest accomplishment?
  • What was your best decision?
  • What were some funny moments?
  • What was your favorite show or movie?
  • What was the song of the year for your family?
  • What was your favorite family game and why?
  • What were you most proud of?
  • What’s a funny or memorable new word that you learned?
  • What was the hardest or most challenging thing?

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